Edit now, or later?

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A reader emails with a question:

When writing a novel, is it best to edit along the way, or just write the entire rough draft, then go back and edit? I can write a chapter and go back and edit and edit and edit. That seems to inhibit further progress on my story. What is your suggestion for editing?

I love to edit. Editing is when I turn my hot mess first draft into the sloppy mess second draft, then the semi-presentable third, and the final version in the party dress and heels. But I don’t edit a manuscript until I have finished that first hot mess of a draft.

Every writer attacks editing differently. Harlan Coben says he begins the morning by reviewing what he wrote the day before and cleaning it up before he launches into the new day’s writing. I used to edit every page as I wrote it. Over and over and over. I ended up with chapters that shone with the strength of a thousand suns… six chapters, about 50 pages, that were all I had after two years of writing. I broke this habit thanks to these words by Tony Hillerman (from the anthology Writing Mysteries: a Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America):

I no longer waste two months perfecting that first chapter before getting on with the book. No matter how carefully you have the project planned, first chapters tend to demand rewriting. Things happen. New ideas suggest themselves, new possibilities intrude. Slow to catch on, I collected a manila folder full of perfect, polished, exactly right, pear-shaped first chapters before I learned this lesson. Their only flaw is that they don’t fit the book I finally wrote. The only book they will ever fit will be one titled Perfect First Chapters, which would be hard to sell. Thus Hillerman’s First Law: Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.

Do what works for you, but don’t let it slow you down.

My friend Ann Aubrey Hanson, freelance editor, says: “I am a proponent of writing it all and then editing, but I can’t keep myself from intermediate edits. That slows progress, but can sometimes help to identify a new course for the story. Overall, though, I say get the story on paper and then edit.”

I agree with Ann: Keep going. If minor edits help loosen up your writing muscles and get you into the story ready to jump into the day’s writing, then do that. But editing and re-editing can leave you spinning your wheels. Whatever you do, keep moving forward.

Photo: two pages from the rough draft of my novel Phantom Instinct, edited.

11 responses to “Edit now, or later?

  1. It’s different for each writer. John Scalzi says that he edits as he goes, he averages more than a book per year, and his writing is both intelligent and entertaining.

    The first couple of years I wrote my blog, I averaged two-three posts per week, of varying lengths (and quality, naturally), and I usually edited after I had “finished” the post.

    Since 2011, I have only written an handful of posts. I think three things changed for me. I became a homeowner, which occupies a great deal of my time. Ideas simply didn’t come as easily and frequently. And I rewrite as I go (and go and go and go…).

    I enjoy writing when I set my hand to it, but I am glad it is not my profession, as my family would starve.

  2. For me it isn’t that I’m trying to perfect the first chapter; it’s that I’m trying to figure out where to star the d*ed book. Wheelspinners R Us.

    • I relate, Hallie. Every story starts life as a multiverse, and figuring out which beginning is the right one can be crazy-making.

  3. I really do love these posts where you show the rough edges.

  4. edit while going, so you don’t have to go the whole way back… thats what i am doing on my book, an dit is working very smoothly… 🙂

  5. I look at the last paragraph or two that I wrote the day before, do some very minor editing, and use that as priming the pump. For me, editing too soon gives the inner critic too much say. I absolutely love to hear about all the different ways writers capture their stories. As you say, it’s what works best for each. I no longer listen to those who say I have to write a specific way.

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